Predictions, they are good and they are bad

The start of the 2010 Chicago Catholic League Cross Country Championships varsity race. Photo by Steven Bugarin.

It is not that difficult to make a good, educated prediction about the outcome of an end of the season cross country meet like the conference meets that will take place this weekend.  You take the results of all the teams and athletes on a common course—most of us have run at Detweiller, for example—plug the results into a spreadsheet, and then score the meet.  But the question remains whether those kinds of predictions are good for anything at all.

Of course, there are the variables that make the methodology flawed.   We ran at Peoria over a month ago—and we did so without our number two and three runners.  Some runners and teams improve at the end of the season; some teams and runners actually have a tendency to run better earlier in the season.  Looking closely at recent results can help tell you which directions teams and runners seem to be heading.

But you also can’t account for the surprises that can happen, like when a runner simply runs out of his or her mind—or when a runner has a terrible day.  The same thing can happen with an entire team.  At our Chicago Catholic League conference meet on Saturday, we will watch the freshmen race and then the sophomore race with particular interest, in part to get an indication whether the whole team seems to be performing.  Surprising races from the freshmen and sophomores on our team might suggest our timing has been good, and our varsity runners might expect a big day, too.

The end of season races at the conference championships and then at the sectional championships in two weeks, when state championship spots are on the line, also bring with them the variables of motivation and emotion.  Everyone simply wants it more on these days, and that brings out the best (or worst) in some runners.

Finally, there are the variables of injury, or illness, or other unforeseen circumstance.  Last season, the Chicago Catholic League championship meet looked like a dead heat, according to the predictions, between Saint Ignatius College Prep, which had not won in 12 years, and Loyola Academy, which has won frequently.  But two of Loyola’s top runners ran the race after suffering from flu symptoms during the week—and the close match became a comfortable win for Ignatius.  As I have sometimes joked with my teams, when we try to imagine ourselves scoring better than what predictions might indicate, “You know, someone could fall down, and then we would have a better chance to win.”

As a coach, the question remains, however:  once you compile the prediction, how honest should you be with the team about your prospects?  Should you tell them they have a chance, even if it doesn’t look like they do, realistically?  Our boys are smart, and they know the results better than I do.  But it is funny how they always still want to believe that they have a chance, against the odds.  Again:  “You know, someone could fall down, and then we would have a better chance to win.”

There are some strategic decisions to be made for a coach, and perhaps those predictions have a bearing.  Do you run a good freshman runner, who has a chance to win the freshman race, in the varsity race–even if the varsity team does not really seem to have a chance to win?  Do you run the good sophomores up to bolster the varsity squad or down in the sophomore race, where they could win the sophomore team championship?

Perhaps my answer—it depends on the situation—is the wrong one.  I think there are coaches in my conference who would tell me directly and simply:  “Run your top seven in the varsity, and don’t think about doing anything else.  The varsity race is what matters, and you run your best team, period.”

Maybe I make it harder on myself—and my team—by wavering on that and trying to be realistic–and making decisions based on realism.  It also sometimes seems like a good thing to put the pressure on the older boys, rather than bolster the team with help from the good underclassmen.  The seniors, in fact, are the ones who should be expected to step up in the big meet.  The sophomores and freshmen deserve a chance to win at their own level—and it can help build the team overall if those underclass teams have success.

As we head into the 2011 Chicago Catholic League Cross Country Championships on Saturday, it seems pretty clear that Loyola has a team that should win.  They are the only state-ranked team in our conference.  They have at least seven runners who have broken 16:00 minutes for three miles, and their top two runners, William Hague and Todd Ford, are among the top ten runners in the state.

Our team has a runner to rival those two, junior Jack Keelan.  The battle between the three should be epic.  But we have only one runner under 16:00 this season so far.  Our number two runner, Patrick Santino, has just returned to racing from injury; he is probably still a couple weeks away from a really good performance.  The other runners on our team have not yet performed this season as well as we might have hoped.  In fact, we are probably going to be in a fight for second place in the conference as we battle teams from Brother Rice and Fenwick.

But perhaps we already hurt our chances for second place, even, if we go into the race thinking Loyola has it wrapped up.  I’m sure there are people who would already be telling me it is a mistake to start the race thinking you are running for second place.

We are, after all, the defending conference champion.  We didn’t get there running for second place.

The little voice is always there:  “You know, someone could fall down, and then we would have a better chance to win.”

And maybe even a little bit more realistically, “We are overdue for a big race.”


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Filed under coaching, cross country running, running

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